Public-health researchers have known for a long time that men are more likely to drink — and to drink heavily — than women. And, as the CDC notes, “Men are also more likely than women to take other risks (e.g., drive fast or without a safety belt), when combined with excessive drinking, further increasing their risk of injury or death.”
But for a while, now, these same researchers have been noticing that women seem to be closing the gap — both drinking more and engaging in greater rates of risky alcohol-related behavior than they used to. Now, in a new paper published in BMJ Open, a team of researchers led by Tim Slade of the University of New South Wales has conducted a meta-analysis, or study of studies, aiming to track the change over time “in male-to-female ratios in indicators of alcohol use and related harms.”
Their findings, drawn from 68 studies, are summed up nicely at the top of the paper:
There was a linear decrease over time in the sex ratio for all 3 categories of alcohol use and related harms. Among those born in the early 1900s, males were 2.2 times more likely than females to consume alcohol, 3.0 times more likely to drink alcohol in ways suggestive of problematic use and 3.6 times more likely to experience alcohol-related harms. Among cohorts born in the late 1900s, males were 1.1 times more likely than females to consume alcohol, 1.2 times more likely to drink alcohol in ways suggestive of problematic use and 1.3 times more likely to experience alcohol-related harms. [parentheticals with some extra statistical information deleted]
That’s a massive, massive decrease. In the early 1990s, someone’s sex could tell you a lot about their relative risk of hurting themselves with alcohol. For young millennials today, there’s very little difference. Overall, the researchers write, the “closing male-female gap is most evident among young adults, highlighting the importance of prospectively tracking young male and female cohorts as they age into their 30s, 40s, and beyond.”
This is a double-edged finding, in a sense. On the one hand, it suggests that since the early 1900s, women have gained more and more of the social freedom that men have traditionally been the primary beneficiaries of. On the other hand, the freedom in question is heavy drinking, which does bring with it all sorts of serious harms.
In the future, this sort of data will be very useful for public-health researchers as they try to figure out how best to allocate resources in our increasingly egalitarian world — a world in which men and women are almost equally likely to get drunk and then do dumb, dangerous things.